"I went to a fight and a Republican Convention broke out."
Just like the old joke about hockey games, a lot of people are expecting July's Republican National Convention in Cleveland to be a very raucous and possibly even violent atmosphere.
With the potential for that kind of "train-wreck television" in the offing, it's no surprise that there are reports of the usual top GOP donors and corporate sponsors delaying their traditional financial backing for the nominating confab. It makes sense that almost any private donor or public corporation would want to avoid what could be a black eye for the Republican Party and the democratic process in general.
Or does it?
One thing that's true about some of the richest people and businesses in America is that they can often appear to be very smart about just about everything, until politics gets into the equation. This might be one of those times, because for corporations looking for customer attention and individual millionaires looking for influence, I can't think of anything that will give it to them better than a truly open and even messy convention.
There's a high road and low road way to explain my assertion. Let's start with the low-road argument: Suppose the convention does descend into a lot of shouting and insults. Suppose there are a few scuffles in the streets outside the Quicken Loans Arena. Wouldn't they make this Republican convention likely to be the most-watched convention or even prolonged political event in U.S. history? It might be ugly drama, but it will be watchable and clickable drama just the same. And are we supposed to believe that when a commercial or embedded ad for Coke or AT&T comes in in the middle of that mayhem, the viewers will somehow blame those sponsors for the fracas? It's more likely that new and more engaged viewers and online followers will be there for the advertisers to hook and educate about their products.
And for the big private donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who often crave attention more than anything else, I also don't see much of a downside. Like the truth about my opening joke alludes to, the old National Hockey League of the 1960s and 70s used to say it was against fights in games but the league knew the fights also drew enormous fan interest.
Now, for the high-road argument. Probably the best advocate for a really open and brokered convention is Wisconsin's Eric O'Keefe, who was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal as a leading grassroots Republican activist. O'Keefe sees an open convention as the opportunity of a lifetime for the Republicans and truly pro-democracy American voters. And I strongly agree that it would be extremely positive to see several candidates and their camps have to make logical arguments for their standard bearers before the delegates over the course of 3-4 nights on live primetime TV and live video stream online. Surely that would be more informative and positive than all the GOP debates that only seem to reward the wittiest speaker at best and the loudest or most insulting candidate at worst. That kind of real political and intellectual theater would likely have no downside for potential advertisers in front of a transfixed audience.
The same is true for private donors who could see their influence multiplied many times over as each campaign will need to win these donors all over again during the course of the convention. This could be the Super Bowl of political events equal only to election night itself in a truly close election. Only this time, there will be several more possible outcomes.
Another high-road consideration is how this will affect the eventual GOP nominee in the general election. The conventional convention wisdom is that you need to have an orderly and uplifting affair to put your most impressive and clean foot forward to the voters. Everyone says you have to avoid the chaos that ensued at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I can understand that argument, but I reject it for two important reasons. First as bad as the '68 convention was, the Democrats did extremely well in the general elections considering how unpopular they were for an incumbent party. Late-comer nominee Hubert Humphrey only lost by the slimmest of margins to Richard Nixon and the Democrats kept control of both the House and the Senate.
Second, and more importantly, the Democrats this time are likely to nominate Hillary Clinton. While she and her campaign will likely be tweeting with snarky glee every time something nasty happens at the GOP Convention, that won't be enough to attract much attention if that convention truly is a dramatic toss up event.
In any of the above scenarios, the news media is pretty much a guaranteed winner. I even know of one or two colleagues who are now busy working on contingency plans in case the GOP convention stretches on for days — that's right days, not hours — longer than currently planned. With the Summer Olympics in Rio not beginning until Aug. 5, I can't think of too much on TV, cable, or even Netflix that can compete with that.
The funny thing is that all the risks for sponsors connected to this convention are much greater if it turns out not to be a contested affair. If the convention turns out to be the usual coronation, with no drama during the actual nominating votes or elsewhere, who's going to want to watch that? And if that coronation is for Donald Trump, convention ratings could hit all-time lows. In that case, the sponsors looking for new customers and donors looking for new influence will be left out very much in the cold. Thus, the last few weeks of slowing momentum for the Trump train and the rising chances for a dramatic convention should be attracting sponsors, not making them skittish.
A contested GOP convention is the advertising and political-influence-building opportunity of the century. Those voters who complain that such a convention would somehow be ignoring the will of the people or "rigged," have it completely backwards.
Despite all his bombast, the real reason Trump is facing die-hard opposition from so many Republican supporters and officials is because he is showing no strength at all in the polls against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. A contested convention won't be an "establishment plot" against the man the people want, but it would be more like an intervention against a bad choice/sure loser in November. But it would still be a completely unrigged affair without a previously known outcome going into Cleveland.
I know it's a Republican convention, but it's doesn't get more democratic than that.